In 2019, I spent two months in Africa: one in Sudan for a desert crossing on foot and another in South Africa to visit friends. Both were unforgettable and unusually rich experiences. There was so much happening every day that I wrote more than seventy pages of impressions, detailed information, names, places and moods, interspersed with drawings.
When I’m on the road, I do my drawing and writing in an ordinary hardcover Opus sketchbook because the paper is good for both: I most often use a bunch of felt pens of various widths but hardly ever use ‘wet’ media. These books are not filled in chronological order; I have about five of them going and the one I take depends on the size of my backpack or type of luggage I bring for the specific destination. The 8.5 by 11.5 is ideal: not too big, not too heavy, so it’s always with me wherever I go. The maximum size I’ve used is 11 x 13.5, which makes it more difficult already to be unobtrusive while sketching on location.
In a very short time after returning home from Africa, I was on the road again (those were the days of roaming free, pre- pandemic!) for a completely different kind of experience: ten days of live theatre in London, England with a group of friends. Every single night we attended the high-level plays this city is so famous for. That same Africa sketchbook was in my backpack at all times, with the idea of doing some urban sketching in London whenever the occasion presented itself.
On the fifth day, our group stands around the ticket booth in the Underground to go downtown again; I take off my backpack, fiddle with my money, pull my ticket out of the wall, look down to the floor and my backpack is gone.
A filmic run-around ensues: with the Tube-guard in the station (who, inside his windowed office a mere 15 feet away from where this happened, saw nothing), I run down the mile-long escalator into the bowels of London, to see nothing on the train platform; I fly back up the exit stairs to the outside, to see nothing – there’s nobody running away from the scene. A lengthy registration of the ‘case’ begins in his Underground Police office, followed by the advice to register it at the main London Police Office, too. A horrifying vortex of bureaucracy draws me in for the remainder of my stay: the unwelcome addition of a never-ending theatre piece by Kafka.
The thief had a great day, that’s for sure. A good leather urban backpack filled with a European Union passport, Canadian Permanent Residency card (meaning serious bureaucracy: the Canadian Commission proves to have no category for ‘stolen bag with everything in it.’ How do you prove your identity or come up with your existing governmental passwords to complete the re-application forms online?), 600 British Pounds in cash, my agenda/notebook, camera, cellphone, umbrella, miscellaneous goodies a woman keeps in her purse, and . . . the sketchbook-cum-journal with all of Africa (and a bit of Venice) in it.
This, and this alone still makes me cry. It feels like a personal violation of a kind I’ve never experienced before, in all my travels. It makes me visualize the various scenarios over and over again. So many people in London were obviously in dire straits, sleeping in parks, clearly angry. Potential hard-up suspects were everywhere you looked, and more ‘professional’ stealing from tourists is known to be common in London, as it is in many big cities of the world.
All that’s left for me is to hope this person had a look at the book, instead of immediately chucking it in the garbage for being useless. We perused all the public garbage cans in the vicinity of our place, hoping that if this were the case, we’d find it, but no. This is hoping that he or she was surprised at the book’s contents and ‘got’ my love for exotic places and their inhabitants. The people I spent time with, showed an interest in, wrote about, sat with to draw their portraits, communicated with in drawing. I’d like to think that the thief didn’t bargain for this kind of a personal book to be in a backpack at all – an inconvenience I presume, but one I still hope lifted his or her day with a fleeting moment of joy and wonder, a bit of an extra bonus on top of a successful heist.
(Note: In between my African and London trips, I made some scans of the drawings done in Sudan and South Africa, thank goodness! So some of the book’s material is still with me – more or less. They’re a topic for future blogs)